High comedy -- deftly hidden; A Glaass of Blessings, by Barbara Pym. New York: E. P. Dutton. $10.95.
Sometimes the most remarkable gifts of novel writing are so deftly hidden that it takes a surrender of expectations to be able to know what you hold in your hand.
Take Barbara Pym for example. She was "discovered" a short time ago in England, though 20 years ago she published several books that went virtually unnoticed. Why was she "discovered" when she was already a fact? Perhaps because she is addressing an irresistible part of human life -- high comedy -- which has its predictible ups and downs as well as timeless affection.
She writes about a world of small things -- not simple but small, not very important. In "A Glass of Blessings," published just after the author's recent passing, the husband is youngish, of the right schools, a civil servant (his name is Rodney). The wife, young, pretty, awesomely untouched by the world, is named Wilmet, and it is her account we are reading.
The mother-in-law in whose house they all live is named Sybil; herm eye is observant and her tongue sharp, though generating no friction.
What Wilmet fancies she has to tell is wondrous in these days of visceral novels. She is perfectly content to share her life with her husband, her mother-in-law, and the parish church (High Anglican).
No one, in her story, needs to do any shopping or prepare any meals, though what is set on the table is of the highest cuisine. Lulls in the day are unnoticed, for they permit time for new flower arrangements.
The three live in an unidentified part of London, though one suspects Kensington or Bayswater, and the parish church is the centerpiece of Wilmet's languid, secular interest.
Now and then a mild crisis insinuates itself. Though its possibilities are welcomed by Wilmet, the occasion is handled awkwardly because crisis, per se, is ungainly in this hermetic world. An exceptionally defused flirtation with her best friend's brother, the mild excitement that comes with the romance and marriage of a colorless neighbor, the peccadillos of the gourmet cook at the vicarage, the occasional protest of the heart against the powerful blanc mange of respectability should add, in the ordinary way, to very slim fare. But don't be deceived.
Here is where this artful novelist instructs the reader in the ambiguities and subtleties of art. The layers of this world are onion-thin; she takes them apart gently, with no malice, not even a mild contempt. Some people live this way; she makes no judgment. But itis a relentless observation, nonetheless, and the delicacy with which it is done only adds to its irrepressible nature. Insights are light and oblique but flashingly brilliant.
At some point the reader may marvel at how Barbara Pym resist stressing the waste, the terribly unimportant, the trivia, and one's thoughts race to consider how Iris Murdoch or Evelyn Waugh would use the same milieu. But psychological insights are not Pym's tools; her affection has an unobtrusive power that works with great skill and is probably close to the truth about these inactive lives; she is writing about people who manage, as a final gesture, an act of inevitable kindness.
The relation between Wilmet and Piers, her friend's brother, for example, is filled with remarkable percipience -- the author's percipience, that is, not Wilmet's or Piers's. For Wilmet is marvelously confused at some of the unexpected turns that sort out her friends and begin lives afresh.
"It seems as if life had been going on around me without my knowing it, in the disconcerting way that it sometimes does, like the traffic swirling past when one is standing on an island in the middle of the road."
But Barbara Pym gets her safely home, and in the course of it you can see, if you take the time, how an immensely deft novelist controls and directs the movements. And one may also have the grace to recognize a little bit of dreamy Wilmet in every "me."